Liberty under surveillance for treatment of sexual assault

Liberty University comes under scrutiny for its handling of sexual assault.

A dozen former Liberty students and employees sued the university in July, alleging that Evangelical Christian University in Virginia “has intentionally created a campus environment where sexual assault and rape is more likely to occur than ‘in the absence of Liberty policies’.

Much of the lawsuit focuses on “arming” Liberty’s strict code of conduct, known as the “Liberty Way,” which the lawsuit says makes it “difficult or impossible for students to report sexual violence “. Under the Liberty Way, spending a night with a member of the opposite sex or consuming alcoholic beverages are two offenses punishable by fines, community service and potentially deportation. While Liberty offered promises of amnesty to students reporting sexual assault, the lawsuit alleges the amnesty policy was incomplete and confusing and, in practice, unevenly enforced.

As a result, the lawsuit filed by the women, identified as Jane Does 1-12, alleges that some students, including some plaintiffs, who said they were assaulted at the university “were asked to withdraw these reports as they involved violations. recognized from the Liberty Way. . “

Some of the plaintiffs say they were in fact punished for violations of the Liberty Way.

One of the plaintiffs, who reports being drugged and raped by her boyfriend, says when she was released from the hospital Liberty offered her counseling, which she saw as an opportunity to discuss her rape. “Instead, she was confronted at Liberty for drinking and fined $ 500,” the lawsuit said.

Another complainant says her roommates reported her to the Liberty Student Conduct Office after she was raped by her boyfriend.

“Although Doe 10 tried to make it clear that she had been a rape victim, the Student Conduct Office at Liberty University did not give her the opportunity to do so and, instead, forced her to sit down with her rapist and apologize to her roommates for her violation of the Liberty Way, ”the costume alleges.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Jack Larkin said the women wanted an overhaul of Liberty’s policies and procedures. He said the university had requested mediation of a settlement, but added that if negotiations fail, it is ready to file an amended complaint adding 10 more plaintiffs, including two students who were victimized. sexual assault last spring.

Women’s experiences were featured in podcast surveys Gangster capitalism and, more recently, the nonprofit media ProPublica.

Two of the women spoke under their real names to Interior edition Last week.

“For many years they swept things under the rug,” Heather Wendel, also known as Jane Doe No. 13, told News Magazine. “Now we lift that rug and see how much dirt and disgust there is underneath. “

Earlier this week, a production company, Talos Films, announced plans for a new non-fiction series, The University of Liberty project, documenting the legal struggle of women.

Besides the continuation of Does v. Liberty, former Liberty spokesman Scott Lamb, has filed a complaint alleging he was fired in retaliation for his opposition to the university’s mismanagement of Title IX sexual misconduct allegations.

The university sued for libel and breach of contract, among other allegations, and maintains that Lamb was fired “because he was insubordinate, failed to obtain the required expenditure approvals, and failed to conduct the business of his department in accordance with the standards set by Liberty. “

A Liberty spokesperson declined requests for an interview, but officials have made a series of public statements in recent weeks on the issues in general.

“The allegations in the Jane Doe 1-12 lawsuit against Liberty University are deeply troubling, if they turn out to be true,” President Jerry Prevo said in an Oct. 26 message to the Liberty community in which he pledged to examine the statements “to determine what needs to be done to make things right, if they are found to be true.”

“Many of the claims are the opposite of how the University’s policies and procedures have been designed to work over the years,” wrote Prevo. “Liberty has invested heavily in programs and staff to help maintain a safe campus and to support all victims of sexual assault who have come forward. Liberty has a strong non-discrimination policy, which includes an amnesty policy to encourage victims to make reports without fear that their involvement in other activities such as alcohol consumption or extramarital sex will be penalized under of the student honor code.

Prevo, who assumed the Liberty presidency last year after former President Jerry Falwell Jr. resigned amid allegations of sexual impropriety, further addressed the issue of amnesty during a summons on November 3, asserting that students should not be afraid of being punished for violations of the Liberty Way if they file a “lawful complaint” for sexual assault or sexual harassment committed during these violations.

“We don’t want you to be afraid to come forward thinking that you are going to have to account for what you were doing when this happened,” Prevo told the students gathered for the convocation. “We want to know that it happened. We want you to know that you can come and that you will not be disciplined for it. So let me just say this: if you do something wrong, don’t pretend something wrong happened to you – okay? “

Liberty also announced plans to install up to 1,000 security cameras and “blue light” emergency call boxes on campus, at a cost of approximately $ 8.5 million. The university’s board of trustees also authorized “an independent and comprehensive review” of its policies and processes under Title IX, the federal law that prohibits gender discrimination in higher education.

Advocates for survivors of sexual assault say these measures do not go far enough. Rachael Denhollander, a lawyer and advocate for victims of sexual abuse who spoke at a recent rally on the Liberty campus, said the Title IX review was explicitly not what was being called for.

“I strongly advised against taking this step because I was concerned that this was exactly what Liberty was going to do,” said Denhollander, who met with Prevo privately during his visit to Liberty. “There are allegations of Title IX policy violations at Liberty, and I think they are serious and need to be addressed, but the vast majority of concerns are not necessarily Title IX policy violations. The vast majority of concerns and what was expressed relate to what happened when they reported to faculty and administration. These were concerns about a culture of silence in Liberty, a culture that does not allow students or leaders to voice concerns about what is happening at the university, and resistance to reforms.

“What you need to do,” Denhollander said, “is a comprehensive cultural analysis, a structural analysis and then a historical accountability for how the leadership of Liberty University has resisted reforms, created cultures where students do not. are unable to express themselves and engage in teaching or practices that discourage speaking out or distort abuse.

Even with respect to what Liberty is committed to, added Denhollander, “there is no commitment to any public report. There is no discussion as to whether investigators will have full access to all information. “

A group of students called Justice for Janes campaigned for reforms, including an independent audit, the installation of emergency call boxes and a policy of universal amnesty.

“Our campaign is very, very happy that President Prevo has taken our demands more seriously,” said Josie Young, group spokesperson and senior executive at Liberty. “The [plans to install the] blue phone booths and the reaffirmation of amnesty policies just mean that our voices are heard, that they take our demands seriously, and that they take campus security seriously.

“However, we don’t want to let small victories calm us down,” Young continued. “There’s still no transparency – they haven’t told us what they plan to do with the information they are going to get – and they’re just focusing on the Title IX cases. It is clear that they are trying to appease us, but we know that we cannot just accept this and call it our victory.

The two U.S. senators from Virginia, both Democrats, also called on the Education Department’s civil rights office to open an investigation following the publication of the ProPublica investigation.

“Any campus policy that dissuades or discourages a sexual assault victim from speaking out and seeking justice is wrong,” Senator Tim Kaine said in a statement. “Students who speak out courageously deserve to be heard and to have their demands taken seriously. My office urges the Department of Education to investigate these allegations against Liberty and take appropriate action. “

Senator Mark Warner called on Liberty leaders to “act quickly to prioritize the needs of survivors, comply with federal law by advising survivors of their option to contact law enforcement, and ensure a campus culture that supports and upholds the fundamental right of every student to a safe environment. .

“While Liberty must act immediately to remedy the alleged problems in the [ProPublica] report, the Bureau should also [for] Civil Rights to the Department of Education to review Liberty’s procedures for dealing with sexual assault cases, ”Warner said in a statement.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Education said the ministry’s Civil Rights Office was unable to confirm receipt of a particular complaint. The ministry updates its list of open investigations every month.

Liberty, who has close ties to many Republican leaders, including former President Trump, suggested in a statement that political factors may be at play in the concerns of the two Virginia senators.

“The Freedom University has been very clear about how seriously it takes the allegations made in Jane Doe’s trial, but these allegations, some 20 years old, should not give the mistaken impression that Liberty University is not fully compliant with all laws regarding its Title IX policies and procedures today, ”said a spokesperson for Liberty. “Nonetheless, the university is conducting an independent review of its processes to determine if any policies or procedures need to be changed. The university invites Senators Virginia Kaine and Warner to visit the campus at the appropriate time to discuss their concerns with our leaders. We hope that senators’ comments do not represent an unnecessary politicization of such a serious problem.

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